Many leaders, project, and product managers have faced situations when the team is disconnected and poorly motivated. There can be many reasons for this: the team is bored, the product needs to be more interesting, or there needs to be more understanding of the product goals and the value of its contribution. Often these problems can be solved by changing the approach to teamwork.

In this article, we will talk about how to build an atmosphere that will help increase interest in work, strengthen support for each other, and make people care about the result of the whole team. This information will be helpful to team leads, project, and product managers.

Collaborative Intelligence: essence and purpose

How does a typical software development team work? Even though the team works on one product, usually each person has their role and area of responsibility. Tasks come down from the product team, and the development team executes them without going into detail.

Everyone does their part and passes the task on when a new ticket comes into a sprint. Most often, people are interested in something other than what happens to the ticket after it moves to the next column. Only some people know what happens to their code after the release. This attitude leads to disunity, decreased motivation, and, consequently, deterioration of the team's efficiency and creativity. But things can be different.

Collaborative Intelligence (CI) is a unique approach to teamwork that has been around for a long time but has gained new meaning  in the pandemic era as a response to the decline in productivity and creativity due to isolation and disunity. Due to the war, many teams were again divided between cities and countries. The feeling of disconnection has become even stronger. CI helps to unite teams by turning their ideas into real solutions.

The approach is based on the idea that a cohesive team, united by a common interest and desire to improve the result, works on specific tasks more efficiently than its most experienced members separately. The way to build Collaborative Intelligence in a team often lies in swarming—the principle of work in which the team interacts like a swarm of bees. While each bee has its own function and responsibilities, bees can only make full hives of honey by working together. The same principle can organize teamwork.

How does it work in practice? Formally, the difference may not be so noticeable, but some minor details radically change people's attitudes toward work and each other. When the product owner at the grooming presents us with new tasks, the team actively participates in their discussion and asks questions to which the product team may not have instant answers. This encourages them to prepare their requirements better and involves the development team in the task from the moment it is set.

We evaluate each ticket together and treat it as a task for the whole team, not just one person. We have Pre-PPG meetings (Pre Poker Planning Game), where we discuss the complexity of the task, share our experience in performing similar tasks, and discuss what remains unclear.

At PPG meetings, each team member estimates the time required to complete the task. A task that takes one hour for a developer may take 8 hours for a tester. Therefore, it is important to find a compromise.

Then we have all the classic scrum rituals. Still, with the difference that:

  • In addition to the compulsory tickets, we choose which tickets we will take in the sprint (this helps to arouse more interest and motivation in the team and also guarantees the fulfillment of all committees).
  • In addition to status meetings, we also hold start-sprint and mid-sprint grooming to be aware of each other's difficulties and distribute the load.
  • We devote our free time to professional growth.
  • Be sure to dedicate time to retro meetings, where we discuss not only dry numbers like cycling city, but also such things as a committee, sprint goal, and product impact.
  • In general, by reformatting our work with the principles of Collaborative Intelligence (forming an interest in tasks and openness to each other), we were able to achieve greater efficiency, cohesion, and motivation.

You can build Collaborative Intelligence through a few simple actions that differ from team to team, so below we will share general ideas and our experience building a team that will work like a swarm of bees.

Principles of Collaborative Intelligence

Teamwork within Collaborative Intelligence is based on four principles: openness, equality, globality, and exchange of ideas.

Openness means that all participants approach the work without the thought "This idea is mine". Open exchange and dissemination of ideas is a priority over intellectual property.

Equality implies that cooperation takes place horizontally, without hierarchical structures or top-down tasks. By allowing everyone to be equal participants sharing their ideas, you will come to effective self-organization and get rid of the need to regulate every process in the team's work.

The principle of globality calls for embracing all team members, removing the boundaries between their specialization and traditional areas of responsibility. Try to unite your development team with the CI principle, product team, and designers. You will soon see how many unexpected solutions you can offer each other.

Sharing ideas and constant feedback is a prerequisite for CI. When people with different backgrounds and experiences come together to work on the same task, the perfect conditions are created for brainstorming, searching for innovations and coming up with extraordinary ideas. This is perhaps one of the main advantages of working on CI principles.

Why and for Whom to Build Collaborative Intelligence

Depending on your role in the team, your reasons may be different. For example, a team leader will get a close-knit team that is on the same wavelength and driven by collaborative work. Project and product managers will get a continuous flow of ideas generated by people with different backgrounds and perspectives on the product. Usually, you have to involve outsiders in this. By enabling CI, you will get diverse opinions within your usual team.

Before we talk about why a team needs Collaborative Intelligence, let's discuss whether this principle of work is suitable for all teams.

To organize work according to the CI principle, you need a certain level of team maturity, experience, and readiness for experiments and instability. In general, the team size does not matter — Collaborative Intelligence can become a unifying principle of the entire company. It is better to start with a team of 5–7 people. This way you can hear everyone's voice and build the right collaboration. Then the approach can be scaled to large accounts and build product development on this principle.

What does Collective Intelligence give to the team?

If the benefits of Collaborative Intelligence are quite obvious to managers and leads, then the reason the team should work on this principle may seem unclear. Let's find out.

What will the team and its members get?

  • Cohesion and improved communication. Some people believe that this work format increases the number of conversations and reduces understanding. This is not the case: there will indeed be more conversations, but they will all be streamlined and systematized, and understanding will increase. Over time, you will switch to continuous communication mode, eliminating the remote format and creating the feeling that you are all in the same space.
  • Increase in the speed of task execution. The understanding of each other grows and there is an interest in a quality result. This leads to the fact that people desire to see their work's effect as soon as possible.
  • Reduction of stress level. Since the whole team is interested in the task, individuals do not feel abandoned. Responsibility is not shouldered by one person, but is shared among everyone. In addition, the presence of short-term and long-term planning helps to ensure options are in place for responding to difficulties and allows you to face them without panic.
  • Improving the quality of work. Ten pairs of eyes can spot a mistake much more easily than one. When the expertise of people with different backgrounds is combined, the strengths of each team member compensate for the weaknesses of the others. People united by one goal always know what stage each ticket is at and do everything possible to bring it closer to release.
  • Comprehensive development of specialists. When people understand that their opinion matters and they can suggest improvements to the product and work processes, they want to learn more and do better. In addition, the variety of available tasks allows them to try different ones and choose the direction they find most interesting. New opportunities that open up during communication with different specialists lead to increased initiative and creativity.
  • Improvement of communication skills. Written and oral communication skills must be practiced daily and often: giving feedback, expressing your opinion, and establishing communication with all stakeholders. As a result, the communication skills of each person effortlessly improve.
  • Development of personal skills. Increased attention to detail, the ability to ask for help, improved problem-solving and decision-making skills, and the ability to find extraordinary solutions—all this develops as a side effect of CI.
  • Increased understanding of international teams. Today, many people work from different time zones, with different cultural backgrounds and everyday habits. CI helps everyone to synchronize, find common ground and adjust their work so that everyone is comfortable.
  • Feedback time is reduced and its quality is improved. When you build open communication and make it clear to the team that everyone's opinions are important, people are not afraid to evaluate the work, management, and product,so you can find out early on if something is going wrong and fix it.
  • Improvement of onboarding. As in other processes, the whole team participates in onboarding. So a person immediately gets acquainted with all colleagues, learns how the processes work and who to contact on various issues. From the first days, a person joins the team as quickly and calmly as possible.
  • Improvement of product quality. People who care about the result of their work worry about the product's fate like their own. They become interested in how the product interacts with users and how to improve every aspect of it.

In general, positive changes will affect both the atmosphere and relationships in the team and the professional skills of individuals.

Where to start implementing CI

When you decide that Collaborative Intelligence will be useful for your team, start preparing it for changes gradually. You won't be able to reformat your work overnight. So start small and move step by step.

Step 1: Prepare the team.

Start delegating some decisions to your team. Swarming means that you work on tasks together and share responsibility for them. Don't hand down tasks from the top, and don't concentrate power in one pair of hands. Ask the team who would like to take over, for example, grooming, and who would like to be responsible for roadmaps. This way, everyone can find the area of responsibility they like.

Create an opportunity for open discussion. Ask about the team's attitude towards the tasks, and give them a chance to suggest their changes. Be prepared to hear unexpected and even unpleasant comments. But it is the work on correcting them that will help you improve processes and find optimal solutions.

Step 2: Be prepared for the protest.

Any change for the team means leaving the comfort zone. You may not have thought about teamwork organization for a long time, or worked according to a different principle. Changes will cause discontent.

Your task is to explain your actions and tell what results they will bring. Understanding the goals and being aware of your impact on the outcome helps them to accept the changes faster.

Step 3: Create different spaces for collaboration.

There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for organizing the perfect collaborative space, so use many different platforms where people can connect and express themselves.

Your task is to organize an effective interaction of talents. Hold grooming sessions, post-mortems, and try hackathons. Such events allow unusual ideas to manifest themselves. Try to appoint different people responsible for each space.

If someone is better at grooming and someone else is ready to organize a hackathon, great. Let everyone do what they do best.

Step 4: Set up the processes.

You will probably have many new processes, meetings, and rituals. All of them should be established and take place for a reason. You don't want meetings for the sake of meetings—every action should have a purpose. CI pairs well with Scrum. Set up a good Scrum, and it will be much easier to set up swarming.

Changes do not have to be instantaneous: gradually add elements of the new approach to your work. Be prepared for resistance. Explain why you are proposing your changes. Test different things and collect feedback. This way, you can change the approach to work and the whole team's attitude over time.

Risks and disadvantages of Collective Intelligence

Like any other approach, Collective Intelligence has its weaknesses. Most of them can be compensated for. Let's take a closer look.

  • First, Collective Intelligence is based on collaboration. Within this approach, you can't play alone, choose favorites or take all the power. This is a process in which the whole team should equally participate. People who used to work alone can become even more disengaged from the team. Your task is to interest the person in teamwork, to show its advantages.
  • Secondly, it seems that with this approach, people can easily shift responsibility to someone else. To avoid this, you should not appoint a responsible person, but offer people to take on some area of work. Of course, there will be situations where there are no volunteers. And this is good. So you can find out why the team does not want or is not interested in doing something. Ask them what is wrong with this task and how it can be improved. People will start to offer you their ways out of the situation, get involved in the work and get excited about it.
  • Thirdly, there may be a feeling of insignificance. When you are working together on a large task, it may seem that individual contributions are insignificant. There may seem to be no point in the work because every team member is doing the same thing. To prevent devaluing a team member, you need to emphasize the result.

For example, one of our developers was working on a rather boring payment system. When we released the system, it turned out that hundreds of people used it on the first day. It also helped save work hours for the support team, as the new system worked more efficiently and was easier and clearer to use. The person who created it immediately feels the benefits of his work and the importance of his contribution to the product.

Experience of our team

We discovered Collaborative Intelligence amid the pandemic when our team, which had previously mostly worked in one office, found itself separated at home. We have worked together for several years, know each other well, and are always open to experiments. Therefore, we decided to try working in this format not because we had serious problems, but rather because we wanted to improve our interaction in a remote format.

More than a year has passed, and we can conclude that we are improving the quality of our work. Now we can share metrics (quantitative and qualitative) that help to track the success of CI.

  • Performance. We have increased this indicator by 30%. The authors of the Collaborative Intelligence idea say that it is realistic to achieve 200% improvement. But obviously, 30% is already a fantastic result.
  • Quality of feedback. Feedback from the leadership team has improved significantly. People are not afraid to speak frankly, do not waste time, and directly report what they like and what they do not like. This helps to solve all problems at the stage of their occurrence and prevent them from growing to a disaster.
  • Time of task transition from backlog to accepted/done. We have reduced this by 2-2.5 times. In this case, we specifically do not count the time to release because it involves factors that we cannot influence.
  • Commitment and predictability. These indicators have reached 100%. We can fully predict our productivity and have reached the point where we can fulfill all those obligations that depend only on us. The time of plan implementation was significantly reduced and, accordingly, it became possible to spend remaining time on professional development. In turn, the improvement of the professional qualities of developers allows faster and better implementation of the plan.
  • Absence/presence of carry over. Now we do not have anything dragged from one sprint to another. If there are such cases, they are exceptions that happen through no fault of our own.
  • The number of ideas. Doubled, and their quality improved.
  • Blocked tasks reduce. We have almost no tasks left that would be blocked for more than 12 hours. Such tickets are either not taken into the sprint, or there are resources and people willing to take them.
  • Perhaps your team will need some more metrics. Of course, use them to assess the success of your SI implementation.

What's the bottom line?

If you are interested in Collaborative Intelligence, it is better to try than not to try. For us, this approach has become a way to unite and bring together a team that lost the opportunity to use one office, work in one physical space, and share problems and joys in personal communication.

Personally, as a team leader, I am endlessly happy to see a motivated team and work with people who enjoy their work, want to grow, and offer new improvements.

The Techstack team can help you build a dedicated team of motivated and driven software engineers who are skilled and choose scalable solutions, and set up a process to secure your product’s success. Contact us, and let’s talk about the opportunities that can grow your business the right way.